The Australian Border Force (ABF) started a blockchain trial with Singapore Customs and the Singapore Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) for the digitalization of cross-border trade processes. The tests will use both the ABF-developed Intergovernmental Ledger (IGL) and IMDA’a TradeTrust.While one of TradeTrust’s objectives is to enable interoperability, it wasn’t explicitly mentioned in the announcement.
ABF’s trial will initially test digital verification for electronic Certificates of Origin the blockchain platforms and gather feedback from participants on their experience, a document with information regarding the product’s destination and country of export. Typically customs departments rely on this to assess import duties. The trial’s outcomes will be shared in the National Blockchain Roadmap’s Discovery Report.
“In addition to our efforts internationally, this initiative will incorporate paperless trading and secure, digital exchange of trade information as part of the future architecture and design of an Australian Trade Single Window,” said Michael Outram, ABF Commissioner.
The Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Australian Industry Group, and financial institutions in Singapore, such as ANZ will also be involved in the project.
The Australian government recently announced the Simplified Trade Agenda, which aims to reform and digitize trade compliance processes. The Department of Agriculture is already working with Singapore on paperless trading for agricultural trade. ABF’s trial is another step towards the Agenda’s end goal.
Meanwhile, the TradeTrust initiative was launched by Singapore’s government over two years ago with the purpose of strengthening Singapore’s competitiveness in international trading. Ultimately its goal is to enable interoperability for trade documentation. It has broad aims that include legal harmonization, developing standards as well as providing open-source software solutions.
Ten months ago, global organizations, including the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), signed a cooperation agreement to develop the TradeTrust blockchain framework.
Like with most businessecosystems, the functioning of global trade relies on efficient exchanges of information, especially of documents. While industries and ecosystems around the world are now digitizing associated processes and automating the bottlenecks, the business ecosystem of global shipping has been slower to realize innovation and digitization.
Supply chain processes require close coordination among many parties and a major choke point in this process is the requesting and finalizing of bills of lading with ocean carriers. There are many situations which cause even the most straight-forward flows to be disrupted and require multiple versions of documents to be created, reviewed and exchanged until final approval and the final bill of lading submission.
TradeLens Workflows utilize blockchain smart contracts to automate and digitize multi-party interactions — this helps drive efficiencies across supply chains. Let’s take a look at each major element to understand what digitizing document workflows looks like for the shipping industry.
Blockchain as the foundation
The foundation of TradeLens Workflows is a permissioned blockchain which guarantees the immutability and traceability of shipping documents and their processes on the platform. This is a very important building block in providing the trust needed to scale.
The permissioned blockchain transforms some of the basic concepts around business networks — contracts, ledgers, transactions, the flow of assets and identity of participants — and introduces the following:
Consensus. Transactions in a blockchain network are first proposed, then consented to by the group, and only then committed to the ledger.
Shared ledger. Trust anchors have an exact copy of the ledger.
Immutability. When a block is committed it is cryptographically secured with previous blocks in the ledger forming an audit log that becomes the foundation of trust.
Accountability: All participants are digitally identifiable, and each blockchain transaction is signed with a permissioned user digital certificate.
TradeLens Document sharing provides a framework for organizing and sharing trade documents related to a host of information such as shipments, consignments and transport equipment. This is all done through permissioned access according to the role of different players and includes security, version control and privacy provisions.
Each trade document is stored on a single stack within the blockchain network, under the control of the operator and accessible only to permissioned parties within a channel. Users can upload, download, view and edit documents as allowed by their permissions and access control on that specific type of document for the trade object in question.
It is important to note, only the hash of a given document is stored on the ledger. The document itself is stored securely where access is granted according to the TradeLens Data Sharing Specification. Each time a document is edited or uploaded, a new version is created and added to the document store. Every version can be verified against a hash of its original submitted content in the ledger.
Blockchain ensures the immutability and auditability of all these documents, promoting trust and alignment across trading partners.
Beyond document sharing
The TradeLens Workflow feature takes thedocument sharing capability one step further. It provides a way to interpret structured documents and take actions on them according to well-defined workflows. In other words, by understanding the purpose and contents of documents we can automate certain actions and notifications in the shipment flow.
As documents are submitted through the TradeLens API or UI, they are interpreted by looking at specific attributes that determine which trade object the document is applicable to, and which actions to perform. The actions are checked against defined rules and only specific actions by specific actors are accepted.
When all requirements are fulfilled, the document is saved and the appropriate action gets recorded as a transaction on the blockchain. Smart contracts ensure the state and progression of a TradeLens Workflow — what can be done at each step, and by which organization or actor.
Our workflows also update generated events to help notify subscribers (members of the supply chain) of the actions and results.
An example of TradeLens Workflow: SI-BL Flow
Let’s talk about a specific TradeLens Workflow — the SI-BL. This variation simplifies the process of sending a shipping instruction (SI) to the ocean carrier and receiving back a verified bill of lading (BL). The TradeLens SI-BL Workflow removes the need to manually edit, amend and transfer these critical documents, accelerating end-to-end flow to achieve a final bill of lading.
When a shipper (or their representative) submits a SI to the TradeLens Platform, it is analyzed by its attributes to determine which consignment it’s related to and which ocean carrier should be notified. Once the carrier has it, a draft BL is submitted back to the platform, the shipper can review and make amendments and share back to the carrier and so on, until a final BL is agreed upon. Because this is an automated process between systems at the shipper and carrier, manual tasks are eliminated along with their inherent delays.
There are many other variations of this flow, but the benefits come from the visibility and increased speed in processing these transactions. Also helpful for shippers, this offers a single mechanism and process for interacting with different ocean carriers with an immutable, shared audit trail for all draft BL revisions and approvals — all recorded on the blockchain ledger.
A digital ecosystem to meet old and new challenges
TradeLens Workflows help connect your ecosystem, drive information sharing and foster collaboration and trust by enabling the digitization and automation of how you work with others.
But for as much as shipping has changed over the decades, not much about the bill of lading (BL) has. Today, it’s pretty much the same often-paper, always-time-consuming document it ever was.
That’s why driving an eBill standard is largely considered the Holy Grail of global trade. Succeed in that, and partners up and down the supply chain would benefit from the days and weeks that paper BLs add to the process as they are printed, pouched, messengered, lost, found and waited upon.
It’s ironic because there isn’t a single aspect of the BL that couldn’t be done better digitally. To demonstrate, let’s dive into the essence of these documents and the challenges that remain to making them digital.
How does an original paper bill of lading work?
Once the vessel departs, an original BL can be issued by the ocean carrier. After the shipper endorses the original bill, it is couriered to the buyer who then needs to surrender it back to the carrier at destination as part of the cargo release process.
It sounds simple enough, but along the way the BL impacts many other processes and actions. Even before issuance, the time-consuming process from a shipping instruction to the issuance of a verified BL, many iterations and changes can occur to get the BL into an approved state.
The BL, and its critical data fields are required for customs clearance, letter of credit, change of title and other processes. One delay in any of these can result in costly extra charges.
The functions of a bill of lading were made to be done electronically
In oftentimes convoluted international shipments, the BL is the legal go-to document that facilitates negotiation, lending and risk reduction by performing three key functions:
1. It is evidence of a contract of carriage
2. It confirms receipt of goods
3. It serves as the title to the goods
So, can eBill perform these functions while maintaining the integrity and legality that’s required? The P&I Clubs think so. Today’s top eBill solutions meet these challenges through rule frameworks and advanced security measures — all while providing significant cost and time savings.
eBills can play a pivotal role — and a digital role
Carriers issue the BL, but they rely on information from shippers which may change multiple times during the booking and shipper’s instruction processes. Electronic features like structured documents make creation, approval, distribution, tracking — everything — easier than paper.
This benefits not only the shippers but the carriers, buyers, sellers and banks without having the need to continue to print out paper — which defeats the purpose
Digital does the different types of bill of lading better
There are many types of BL, reflecting the complexities of international trade. Eliminating paper is only the beginning of the ways eBills can help streamline processes related to the two main categories of BL:
Sea Waybills are sometimes referred to as “Express Release.” They have a named consignee on them but are issued without any original documents that have to be presented for the release of the cargo. Non-negotiable and non-transferable, they are usually used in three cases:
Intra-company shipments between divisions located in different countries
Shipments when no negotiations take place between the seller and the consignee
Instances when the shipper doesn’t have to submit an original BL to any party in order to secure their payment
Original BLs have different forms that all hinge on the issuance of original BL documents in some way.
· Order BLs are the most common type of BL. They enable delivery of the cargo to be made “To Order” to the bonafide holder of the BL. These types of BL are negotiable and often linked to letter of credit transactions. Often banks must verify and endorse the original BL before the cargo can be released to the buyer.
Straight BLs stipulate that the cargo may only be released to the specified consignee and only upon the surrender of an original BL.
Open BLs are negotiable and transferable. The name of the consignee can be changed with the consignee’s signature and transferred — often multiple times.
Going Digital assists in filling out the bill of lading
With shippers providing the majority of the information for a BL, completeness and correctness is crucial. eBills help guide the way. If shippers can provide bill of lading information digitally, there’s less risk of keying errors. Form fields and autofill features all speed the process and lead to time savings.
One of the challenges of going paperless with BLs from the very beginning is standards. Adhering to set data standards makes information useful for different parties within organizations and multiple supply chain partners and it enables seamless workflows from automation. Unfortunately, standards are far from being standard today.
Digital makes the information included in a BL more useful
Users look to the bill of lading as an infallible source of essential and comprehensive information like names and addresses, purchase orders or reference numbers, special delivery instructions, pickup date, description of items, packaging type, NMFC freight class and DOT hazmat designations.
eBills of lading can make this information highly transparent to supply chain partners who can use it. But like many of the benefits of eBills, this transparency hinges on adoption — if all the participants of the supply chain are rowing together digitally, it works. If not, it just makes for another manual process that may end up being even more work than paper.
With its centrality to supply chains and essentiality to digitizing global trade, it’s easy to understand why the industry has its sights set on digitizing this important document. But acceptance of the eBill remains both the goal and the greatest challenge today. That’s why getting the eBill to catch on will require successfully digitizing the entire process for eBills, too.
TradeLens, with its relationships with the world’s largest ocean carriers, is in a unique position to explore the digitization of this process at an unprecedented scale. Within an ecosystem where there’s already widespread acceptance, the potential of the eBill could finally be revealed.
CargoSmart Limited, a leading shipment management technology solutions provider, announced that it conducted a pilot project with COSCO SHIPPING LINES (COSCO), Shanghai International Port Group (SIPG), and Tesla, Inc. (Tesla) for a new application to transform the cargo release process. It is among the first pilot projects with an ocean carrier conducting a real-time exchange of shipment data with a terminal operator through blockchain. The pilot not only demonstrated the benefits of having a single, trusted source of truth in cargo documentation, but also the efficiency gains for industry participants. Such an application will undoubtedly accelerate the digitalization of shipping industry processes and the further optimization of currently stressed global supply chains. The application will be further developed for participants of the Global Shipping Business Network (GSBN) blockchain consortium, once it is officially established.
The pilot project was designed to minimize consignee and shipping agent verification steps with their ocean carriers in order to speed up the release of sea waybills. As a result, truckers are able to pick up their cargo at the terminal faster, helping shippers meet delivery windows and ensure that service quality and customer commitments are met.
During the pilot in December 2019, COSCO and SIPG streamlined the cargo release process by enabling Tesla to accelerate its cargo pick up procedures on a trusted and secure platform (related post on COSCO’s official WeChat account). The pilot also allowed SIPG to view a single, trusted source of COSCO’s sea waybill data, enabling faster preparation of delivery orders for consignees and their shipping agents. In late March 2020, CargoSmart further enhanced the application to display laden gate out, appointment date, and terminal release, enabling shippers to have better visibility of their cargoes.
Henry Huang, Executive DGM of Operation & Business Department of SIPG, said, “The pilot is a key component of our journey towards paperless, trusted, and seamless trade processes at the Port of Shanghai, and it demonstrates the benefits for supply chain stakeholders around the world. We look forward to extending the collaboration with more supply chain stakeholders to render extraordinary service to our community.”
Wu Yu, General Manager of Business Process & System Division of COSCO said, “The pilot with SIPG and CargoSmart showcased significant efficiency gains not only in the cargo release process, but also for downstream supply chain planning by presenting a single source of truth for documentation for all involved parties. We look forward to more blockchain-based applications that can create value for customers and the industry alike.”
Expanding Value to More Carriers and Terminals
The successful pilot has proven that the unique collaboration model between ocean carriers and terminal operators is able to create benefits for stakeholders along the global supply chain. Leveraging this successful experience, the cargo release application is expected to further promote carrier-terminal data exchange and streamline operations. It is envisaged that this application will unleash the full potential of the proposed GSBN platform once it is established, subject to the requisite regulatory approvals.
As preparations continue for the future formation of the GSBN, contingent upon securing required regulatory approvals, CargoSmart will conduct similar pilots with Xiamen Ocean Gate Container Terminal Co., Ltd. (XOCT) and other terminal operators such as those at the Port of Qingdao in China and the Port of Laem Chabang in Thailand. The objective is to broaden the scope of the pilot by involving more carriers and terminals, and eventually extending the pilot to other industry participants in the near future. To further enhance the value of the pilot application, CargoSmart will enable APIs to explore and test ways to extend visibility to shippers for greater efficiencies throughout the cargo release process.
In August of 2019, both the United States and Thailand announced their plans to test blockchain applications for tracking and managing shipments. The U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is planning to test a blockchain application against their current system to determine how distributed ledger technology (DLT) can improve its existing processes. Thailand, on the other hand, plans to use IBM’s blockchain-based logistics platform Tradelens to improve customs processes such as data sharing.
Originally developed in a joint venture between IBM and logistics giant Maersk, Tradelens seeks to streamline processes in the global shipping industry by making the flow of information occur in real-time. The blockchain platform is reported to currently process about half of the world’s shipping data.
These moves highlight countries’ increasing interest in employing blockchain technology in their customs and border operations. The Tradelens website says its ecosystem comprises over 100 different organizations including carriers, ports, terminal operators, third-party logistics firms, and freight forwarders. More specifically, a map on the Tradelens website suggests that about 60 ports and terminals worldwide are directly integrated with TradeLens.
Elsewhere, the Directorate-General for Taxation and Customs Union (TAXUD), which develops policies and operational systems for the European Customs Union, explored the applicability of blockchain in customs and taxation with a focus on utilizing blockchain as a notarization service.
The Union is looking into using blockchain to digitize ATA Carnet, an international customs document used in 87 countries for temporarily admitting goods duty-free. A pilot project conducted in collaboration with the International Chamber of Commerce World Chambers Federation (ICC WCF), was successfully tested in 2018.
The ICC WCF, a body of the ICC that helps facilitate mutually beneficial partnerships between ICC members, has been working with different customs authorities to develop solutions for converting ATA Carnets into electronic documents.
About 80 countries around the world have developed authorized economic operator (AEO) programs and signed a mutual recognition agreement (MRA), all in an effort to streamline cargo security. Under such arrangements, individual countries identify and approve trustworthy logistics operators that pose a low risk in security and share the approval information with participating countries.
This allows countries to piggyback on the security checks of other countries to make customs operations more efficient. However, a few problems have arisen with the program.
There are information leakage risks associated with the conventional way of sharing AEO data by email. While a sender’s email server may be encrypted, there is no guarantee that the receiver’s is as well, and vice versa.
Data sharing is not real-time, but monthly or at an agreed-upon interval. This limits the speed at which information on new or suspended AEOs can reach all participants.
To avoid the aforementioned problems as well as achieve additional time and cost savings on security procedures, customs administrations in Mexico, Peru and Costa Rica are working with the Inter-American Development Bank to develop a blockchain application called Cadena.
The move by governments around the world to employ blockchain to improve cross-border trade marks a step toward paperless customs processes, which originally began with the digitization of information flows by making trade-related data and documents available and exchangeable electronically. For all the improvements they’ve brought to paper-heavy processes, traditional electronic data exchange systems still face the challenges of authenticity and the unavailability of real-time data exchange.
For instance, the Netherlands and China launched a five-year project in 2010 to test the applicability of electronic sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) certificates. A World Economic Forum white paper titled “Paperless Trading: How Does It Impact the Trade System?” noted that concerns around the authenticity of the electronic documents arose. This necessitated the adoption of electronic signature systems and a whole new legal framework that recognized the electronic signature.
Still, the entire process requires longer procedures and the introduction of new types of intermediaries — e-signature providers, for instance. Moreover, low-income countries, the trade costs of which remain high compared to high-income countries as according to World Bank data, may not have the budget to implement several new systems for data and document digitization. They still need to invest in better customs infrastructure.
Blockchain, on the other hand, if implemented in border protection, will ensure real-time availability and immutability of customs documents while saving considerable costs on excessive paperwork.
The world’s first blockchain-based platform for electronic certificates of origin (eCOs) was unveiled in Singapore on Tuesday.
The platform is the result of a partnership between the Singapore International Chamber of Commerce (SICC) and Singapore-based vCargo Cloud. As the first chamber in the world to implement blockchain-based eCOs, SICC seeks to provide its members and trade-related agencies, including trade financing and insurance firms, with a system that offers higher security, efficiency and flexibility. The platform aims to vastly improve transparency, security and efficiency in authenticating trade documents. It permits instant verification of eCOs and runs on a private blockchain network that prevents fraud, alterations and third-party interference.
SICC says the platform represents a quantum leap in processing trade-related documents by hosting information of trade transactions on a tamper-proof distributed ledger system, which can be authenticated and accessed by various stakeholders of the platform. The platform uses QR codes, allowing eCOs to be scanned using smart phones and then printed. The number of allowable prints is restricted to prevent unauthorized duplicates. This improves efficiency and minimizes the costs of verifying COs, removing a major impediment in the process and a frequent cause of high insurance or trade finance costs.
vCargo Cloud intends to leverage on the Singapore launch to promote the platform globally, beginning with Asian countries that are substantive manufacturing exporters such as Japan, Myanmar and Sri Lanka, using a pay-per-use model.
The launch of the blockchain-based eCO platform comes amidst the Singapore Government’s call for a Self-Certification regime through the ASEAN Single Window, which aims to expedite freight clearance and reduce manual paperwork across all 10 member countries.